Rob Drabkin | Live
album review by John Powell
Every year for the last five, Rob Drabkin celebrates his January 19th birthday with a concert. For 2012, Rob took over the Bluebird Theater in Denver, CO, and decided to play all of Paul Simon’s Graceland, as well as some of his own songs. The result is this double-disc live set; a well-mixed moment in history as one of the U.S.’s most underrated songwriters salutes his inspiration, Paul Simon. After hearing Drabkin go through “She Comes and Goes” and “Under African Skies”, it’s clear Rob, who always sounded to me most like Dave Matthews, has Simon’s sense of musicianship- keep it simple, pretty, and lyrically fresh.
Rob’s band is on fire. It’s a big line-up, but the main band, Brian McRae, Eduardo Barbosa, Eric Moon, and Dave Preston, keep things classic: guitars, drums, bass, and keys. Guest female vocalists add soul. There’s trumpet, saxophone, banjo, and some other accents that keep the long set fresh.
Rob’s voice is great. Warbled and sincere, he’s no opera singer, but like Simon he know how to sing a particular word. Throughout his version of Graceland Rob rearranges the instrumentation and toys with the melodies, but never too much to be unrecognizable, and instead does what he does to fit his particular style and that of the band.
On “She Comes and Goes” Rob first pulls out his dad, who plays saxophone with Rob often, out on stage. Harry Drabkin is a fantastic saxophonist, somewhere between sexy and jazzy. Backed by the band, the sax is warm and never as cheesy as sax tends to be.
“I Know What I Know” is a highlight from disc one. With Simon’s original arrangements you can do no wrong, but the band picks it up beautifully. Rob is having a blast. You can tell by the timbre of his voice, and on this song, which is a Simon hit, you can tell Rob recalls when he first discovered the power of Simon’s music.
“You Can Call Me Al” begins slower than the original, with just guitar- no bass, and Rob lets it sink it for the audience, which claps along, having a great time going through Graceland with Rob. When that classic instrumental melody finally kicks in, it’s done so with bass and sax; again, different from the original but never losing the vibe.
Two discs of live Rob Drabkin is perhaps this most accurate sense of Rob as a musician. It’s fun, but taken seriously. It never misses a beat. Intermittently, Rob shares how humbled he is by the experience, thankful for the audience and stoked that his birthday consists of such an event. That’s the truest expression of Rob out there.
Although his next studio album, whenever it comes out, will be a step forward, as Rob never looks back, this live album is both a great intro to the songwriter and a great interlude for fans. Especially if you like live albums, this one sounds great.
Bottom line: Rob Drabkin celebrates his birthday by playing Graceland all the way through on this double disc live set.